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School District Faces 'Nuclear Option' as Chicago Threatens Teacher Layoffs and 35-Student Classrooms

Chicago School Board Opens Door to 35 in a Class

by Rosalind Rossi

CHICAGO - Chicago School Board members Tuesday tackled their worst fiscal crisis since Mayor Daley's 1995 school takeover by granting school officials the power to raise class sizes to up to 35 students for the next two years.

Outgoing Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart (left) speaks Tuesday, joined by incoming president Karen Lewis. Lewis urged the board to first cut expensive curriculum created by outsiders, high-stakes testing and a long line of pricey vendors and consultants. "I would implore you to reconsider,'' Lewis said. "This is a nuclear option.''(Brian Jackson/Sun-Times) If Schools CEO Ron Huberman acts on that new power, he's sure to anger hundreds of teachers laid off in the process and potentially the parents whose children they serve.

During a dramatic emergency meeting, board members also blocked any chance of a teacher strike over pay by indicating they expect to honor the 4 percent pay raises promised to teachers and seven other school unions -- an increase valued at $135 million.

At the same time, the board agreed to give Huberman the authority to take out a line of credit of up to $800 million. The short-term bridge, Huberman said, is needed to cover more than $400 million in late state aid payments and pump up a reserve fund that will soon dwindle to the equivalent of one week's operating costs.

Facing a packed chamber, seven school board members unanimously approved every emergency measure brought before them to help plug an estimated $427 million deficit. Rookie School Board President Mary Richardson-Lowry called the moment "extraordinary.''

The veteran of the bunch, LaSalle Bank chairman emeritus Norm Bobins, said he was casting "the most difficult vote'' of his 15 years on the board.

Although the Civic Federation has questioned the board's decision to raise class size by five students to save $125 million rather than take on the union over pay increases, Bobins said, "We signed a five-year contract three years ago. . . . I believe we must honor it.''

Forgoing pay increases would only get the district a third of the way out of its financial hole, Bobins noted. Nevertheless, he said, "I hope we can come to some consensus with the union and meet each other halfway.''

Huberman cautioned that the board's budget was "fluid and changes by the day'' because of uncertain state funding, and he was merely asking for the authority to raise class sizes if needed.

However, Huberman said, he could not risk any chance of a strike over the promised 4 percent pay raises. A class size increase that could displace 2,700 teachers and 300 non-teachers, Huberman said, was "not the first place we turned, it's the last place we turned.''

It came after 800 non-union workers lost their jobs, and those left behind endured pay freezes and furlough days that ate up 6 percent of their paychecks, Huberman said.

District officials have given the teachers union "a menu of possible concessions,'' and "we remain hopeful that [the union] will share in recognizing the challenges almost every district across the country is facing,'' Huberman said.

San Diego teachers, he noted, have agreed to five furlough days to avoid layoffs; Las Vegas teachers are swallowing a pay freeze and increased medical co-pays.

In an unusual display of solidarity, at one point both incoming Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and outgoing President Marilyn Stewart stood together at the podium as Stewart railed against the class size increase, calling it "educational malpractice.''

"I am ashamed of the Board of Education,'' Stewart said. Lewis hugged her afterward.

Lewis urged the board to first cut expensive curriculum created by outsiders, high-stakes testing and a long line of pricey vendors and consultants. "I would implore you to reconsider,'' Lewis said. "This is a nuclear option.''

Afterward, Burley School parent Wendy Katten, who helped organize a parent rally against class size increases and the state education-funding system, predicted that North Side parents who have raised huge amounts of money for their neighborhood schools will bail out if their children wind up in packed classrooms.

"There are parents who are saying, 'I'm done working this hard when you're saying 35 kids,' " Katten said. "People are saying they'll sell their house at a loss. They are out of here.''

Daley tried to shift the political blame to Springfield, saying, "It's the state of Illinois that basically is cutting [education] funding . . .

"The Board of Education is not the enemy,'' Daley said. ". . . They don't want big classes. No one wants any big classes.''

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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